Welcome to Beer Valley
Empire Malting Co.
By Craig Manning | Aug. 15, 2020
It’s no secret that Northern Michigan has become something of a craft beer Mecca. From Short’s in Bellaire (the third biggest brewery in the state in terms of production volume, after Bell’s and Founder’s) to the collection of breweries scattered around Downtown Traverse City, you don’t need to go far in northern Michigan to find someone who brews beer.
But what about someone who grows barley, one of beer’s key ingredients? While hops have become a somewhat common agricultural export in the region, barley remains more of an anomaly. In fact, even the producers who are making malted barley locally have only been at it for less than a decade. One of those producers is Empire Malting Company, which planted its first barley crop in 2013.
FATE ON THE ROAD
According to Alison Babb, founder and director of Empire Malting Company (pictured above), the origins of the business actually date back to a road trip, of all things. While she’s a Michigander to the bone now, Babb was neither born nor raised in the Mitten. In 2011, she earned her bachelor’s degree in agricultural operations management and technical sales from the University of Florida. Two years later, she found herself driving through Michigan, marveling at the natural beauty of the landscapes and taking pitstops along the trek to sample Michigan beers. She fell in love.
“I realized that Michigan is a place where the beer is just unmatched,” Babb said. “It's wonderful. The brewers here are really great at what they do. And so, when I arrived up in northern Michigan, it didn't take me long to decide that this was going to be a great place for me. [Empire Malting] started with this keen interest on finding out what the barley would taste like here. With hops growing everywhere, it seemed like the perfect place to start up and see if the barley would grow.”
With a goal in mind, Babb set her sights on finding a place to put a barley crop in the ground. Luckily, she says that piece of the puzzle fell into place quickly and serendipitously. In no time at all, she was getting her wish: to see what barley grown in northern Michigan could be.
“I met my partner Zack [Stanz], and he had this historic barn and a family farm here, and he was part of a hop-growing group,” Babb explained. “So we planted our first barley in 2013, and it was a beautiful crop. There's nothing more beautiful than a barley field in the summertime.”
In the years since that first crop, Empire Malting Company has grown considerably. This year, the business is aiming to grow 300 acres of barley, up from 280 last year. Along the way, Babb and her team also built a malt house, cultivated relationships with local brewers, and expanded their portfolio to include six types of barley (and counting).
Crucial to Empire Malting Company’s success so far, Babb says, is the push among breweries throughout the region (and across the state as a whole) to source their ingredients from close-to-home sources and producers.
Michigan brewers have always had at least one clear advantage on that front, thanks to the proximity of the Great Lakes. While many beers incorporate extra ingredients such as chocolate, coffee, and mint, all beers start with the same four building blocks: water, hops, barley, and yeast. Michigan brewers enjoy plentiful access to fresh water, which gives the state a leg up over many others when it comes to craft brewing. Hops have also become a prominent crop in Michigan, with the single largest supplier of hops in the Midwest — the Michigan Hop Alliance — based right here in northern Michigan (you’ll find it in in Northport).
Until recently, though, Michigan was not much of a barley producer. According to a 2014 article published by Michigan State University Extension, it was common during the first half of the 20th century for Michigan producers to harvest 100,000 acres of barley every year. Particularly robust years delivered harvest hauls of 300,000 acres. During the second half of the century, though, the state’s barley acreage saw a steady decline. By the 2000s and early 2010s, Michigan was averaging just 10,000 acres of barley harvest each year.
The small harvest wasn’t the only problem for brewers hoping to source malt from Michigan producers. As the MSU Extension article also noted, there were not many malt processing operations in Michigan as of the mid-2010s. Barley grain cannot be used for beer production until it has gone through the malting process, where moisture stimulates germination inside the barley grain. This process helps unlock the enzymes and sugars in the barley, making them available for the brewing process. In turn, this malted barley plays a crucial role in giving beer its signature golden hue and robust flavor backbone.
When Empire Malting Company came on the scene, Babb says she was able to quickly build contacts with breweries throughout the state, in part because there was such an urge among brewers to source their ingredients as locally as possible. Partnering with those breweries shaped what Empire Malting is today because it familiarized Babb and her team with the role their malt needed to play in beer production.
“We had quite a bit of trial and error those first few years,” Babb told Northern Express. “But over time, we got to know the brewers and what they were really looking for, and what our barley could do. The big picture really came together for us, and I'd say we've been really producing and selling malts for four years now.”
FINDING THE TASTE OF THE PLACE
Ostensibly, barley is to beer what grapes are to wine. And just as wine grapes grown in different geographical areas impart specific flavors and characteristics onto the wines they are used to produce, so too does a barley’s origin affect the flavor of a beer. The word for this idea in the world of wine is “terroir,” a French term that translates literally to “earth” or “soil.” Speaking of crops, “terroir” refers to the specific environmental factors that can affect how a crop grows, including soil types, climate, precipitation, and more. Speaking of wine, “terroir” is often thought of more as the “taste of a place,” or the characteristics in the wine that tie it to its specific geography.
Babb says she was drawn to grow barley in northern Michigan because suspected it would have a significantly different terroir than the west coast or other parts of the Midwest. Describing precisely what that terroir is, though – and what differences beer drinkers might notice in similar beers brewed with northern Michigan malt versus malt from, say, California or Montana – is a challenge.
“It's a very complex medium to work with,” Babb said of barley. “There is a lot of flavor there and there's a lot going on as far as what we're looking for in a malt barley. So when we see a lot of rain come, for example, it's a scary challenge for us, more so than it is in much of the Midwest. But the thing that comes with the rain is the proteins tend to be lower. If it's been wetter all season, then you see such low proteins and you'll get really, really great modification in your malt, as we call it, which means your wort [the “beer starter,” made up of malt extract and water] is going to be really lovely and light. We try to study [the malt terroir] and take it in stride and really work with it.”
Whatever the terroir of northern Michigan barley, local brewers have certainly responded to what Empire Malting Company has brought to the table. The business regularly provides malt to more than half a dozen northern Michigan brewers, including Stormcloud Brewing Company in Frankfort, Five Shores Brewing in Beulah, Lake Ann Brewing Company in Lake Ann, The Filling Station Microbrewery and Middlecoast Brewing Company in Traverse City, and Short’s in Bellaire. Empire Malting Company also ships its malt out to several brewers around the state, including in craft beer hubs like Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, and Detroit. And recently, Babb says the phone has started ringing off the hook with calls from distillers, all of them looking for barley to use in their spirits. (All whiskey essentially starts out as beer, hence the need for malt.)
KEEPING IT FRESH
Beyond the appeal of supporting local business and the draw of unique terroir, Michigan brewers and distillers have come to trust Empire Malting because of the company’s focus on freshness. Babb says she and her team are very deliberate about planning their batch sizes — about 5–6 tons of malt each week — to maximize freshness. That number is the product of a math equation, one that takes into account crop acreages and harvest times to ensure that the Empire Malting malt house is constantly producing fresh malt, but that its grain reserves only hit empty just before harvest time.
“Every harvest, we want to see all of our inventory coming in with our grain bins empty and ready to receive it, so that we're working with all fresh barley,” Babb explained. “We successfully have done that two years in a row now, and that's a really cool thing that we do as a malt house. It really is quite different than a lot of mass-produced malts, the fact that our inventory is 100 percent fresh. Brewers know that when they’re getting malt in from us, it's always this year's inventory. And that makes the terroir concept even more powerful.”
Keeping things rolling constantly is somewhat complicated, especially as Empire Malting has expanded its capabilities to include different kinds of malt. Currently, the business is producing six types of malt – including pilsner, pale, brewer’s two-row, Vienna, Munich, and special malts for distillers from malted oats and rye. In recent years, the company has also added winter barleys to its acreage, which adds different planting and harvest times into the equation. Fortunately for Empire Malting Company, Babb and most of her team live right on the farm property.
“We’ve always had a very tight group that works at the malt house,” Babb said. “We live beside the facility, which allows us to make sure our batches are well attended to. It is a 24-hour/365 job. We operate all year long. We bring in most of our barley in August at harvest time and we malt it throughout the year, every week. We have a very small three or four-person crew that runs the operations here, and we stay out here and we live out here.”
That close-quarters live/work setup has made things easier for Empire Malting this year, as COVID-19 has created big question marks about the safety of workplaces and the ability of agricultural operations to function as normal. But with the blessing of a quality 2020 crop and a growing interest throughout the industry of sourcing ingredients close to home, Babb says that it’s actually been a good year for her business.
“Everybody's had to change various aspects of doing business and serving beer, so it's been a tough year [for the industry as a whole],” she said. “But I can definitely say that I've noticed a huge push to try to get your ingredients locally and operate in a way that can support local businesses — and make sure that you can actually get your ingredients. Having a shorter supply chain is a big benefit right now.”